Keriayn Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics, has been selected as one of the first six recipients of Hypothesis Fund grants to advance innovative early-stage research.
Keriayn Smith, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC Department of Genetics in the UNC School of Medicine, was selected from six scientists to receive an inaugural seed grant from the Hypothesis Fund, a new initiative dedicated to “the advancement of scientific knowledge by supporting early-stage, innovative research that increases our adaptability in the face of systemic risks to the health of people and the planet.
Smith’s project, titled “Not Junk: Noncoding RNAs as Determinants of Cell Identity,” was selected for the boldness of science, its willingness to take risks and pursue a big idea, and the potential long-lasting impact. term of his work.
The Assumptions Fund takes a unique approach to supporting research. It enables a diverse, world-class network of science scouts to identify high-risk, high-reward ideas at the edge of the network that would otherwise be underfunded or not pursued at all.
The Hypothesis Fund, founded by David Sanford, supports research projects in their early stages, usually before there is preliminary data. “Our funding is intended to be catalytic – a quick path to enable a scientist to ‘flip the map’ and see what’s there,” Sanford said. “And we focus on bold new ideas in basic research, not on continuing existing research.”
Smith’s lab will use single cell/molecule and computational approaches to shed light on the importance of vastly understudied RNAs, to support a goal of defining roles for specific noncoding transcripts in developmental decisions in cells.
Excerpt from Dr. Smith’s project summary:
Most of the human genome does not directly code for a protein important for specific functions inside cells. Less than 3% of the genome codes for messenger RNAs, yet there is ubiquitous transcription to produce thousands of RNAs. This includes a myriad of uncharacterized or understudied non-coding RNAs. The class of long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) are treated similarly to mRNAs and are thought to outnumber mRNAs in the human genome. While the field has grown exponentially over the past decade, only a small fraction of human lncRNAs (about 20,000 human genes and about 60,000 transcripts) are well understood.
However, the lncRNAs experimentally characterized so far have important functions. These include influencing cellular processes such as transcription, splicing and translation regulation, to impact cellular homeostasis and cellular identity. Additionally, it is increasingly appreciated that many pathogenic SNPs reside in non-coding regions of the genome that have the potential to produce lncRNAs. This, combined with striking cell- and tissue-specific expression relative to mRNAs, suggests potential roles for lncRNAs in development and disease, including degenerative diseases and cancers.
“Our project will bring a new dimension to the vast body of ‘omics’ data by filling in gaps that cannot be fully explained by bulk or protein-centric analyses,” Smith said. “Given the sheer number of lncRNAs, our project has the potential to add a whole dimension of knowledge to contribute to regenerative and personalized medicine approaches, including gene therapy and theranostic development.
Along with Dr. Smith’s core scientific interests, she is the Director of Education and Excellence for the new RNA Discovery Center at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, with the goal of increasing the diversity of scientists studying RNA. RNA. This is backed by a long history of designing and delivering programs that have reached thousands of people at different levels of education.
UNC School of Medicine Contact: Marc Derewicz
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